Tuesday, June 28th, 2022 23:21:19

Modi transforms Varanasi

By Shekhar Iyer
Updated: December 23, 2021 7:03 am

The Kashi Vishwanath Dham corridor was inaugurated on December 13 in a grand spectacle by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that evoked intense devotion among thousands of the faithful across India.

It also re-sparked a fiery debate about retrieving and restoring our ancient heritage that fell to depredators in the by-gone era as pictures of Modi offering prayers at the Kal Bhairav temple, taking a dip in the cold Ganga and then doing bilva archana at the hallowed Kashi Vishwanath’s JyotirLinga amid chanting of mantras beamed across to the nation.

For the first time, it presented the city of Varanasi in an entirely new dimension and possibilities, underlying India’s determination to reclaim its momentum–because of a strong political will.

Since he began to represent Varanasi, Modi had pledged  to change one of the oldest cities of India into a blend of modernity and ancient tradition– while preserving its unique character of eternity.

Varanasi has always symbolised “Shiva” tattva, which means pure bliss beyond transcendence–from where everything has come, everything is sustained and everything dissolves into it.

Modi showed that he was committed to enhancement of this dimension for the benefit of the people.

First, it was Somnath that got a new identity soon after India’s Independence.

Then, it was Kedarnath after Modi ensured that, not just the shrine but the entire “kshetra” was given a massive facelift for the benefit of the faithful following the 2013 devastation.

The significance of the December 13 event at Varanasi was much more.

Modi inaugurated the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor that connects the ancient Kashi Vishwanath Temple to the ghats of the Ganga. It was an incredible moment because no one ever thought that the maze of dirty lanes and by-lanes would vanish one day to give a direct access to the temple from the riverfront.

“What has Modi done to Varanasi? Has he given a new identity or revived its ancient heritage?” was the outcry among those cynics who thought nothing can ever alter the city’s topography.

But, for the people of Varanasi, it was unbelievable that things can actually change in their city.

If you have visited Varanasi, you can imagine how ambitious the project was!

It was always said “you cannot improve anything in Kashi because that is how Lord Shiva wanted it!”

But Modi took the challenge to transform it, first by improving a number of ghats that dot the city along the Ganga. Then, by focussing attention on the main temple and its surroundings. Further development of the city is still on.

Modi realised that the Kashi Vishwanath temple lacked direct access to the Ganga. So a 20-foot-wide corridor was envisaged to connect Lalita Ghat on the holy river to Mandir Chowk on the temple premises. The idea was that all devotees should be able to take a dip in the river every morning and then worship the Lord in the temple, which will now have direct visibility from the ghat.


Big plan for Varanasi

The push to redevelop the Kashi Vishwanath complex was in line with Modi’s ambitious projects for temples around the country. Coming as it did after laying of the foundation by the PM for the Ram temple at Ayodhya on August 5, 2020, it was quite natural that the event evoked strong emotions across the country– even as a select brand critics could not help repeating their old hallucinations that India being headed towards a Hindu theocratic state–just because the Member of Parliament from Varanasi chose to keep up his promise..

Modi has repeatedly described these works as nation-building projects, showing the successful fruition of an ancient land’s efforts to find and celebrate its ancient glory in modernity.

With a paved 75-metre-wide corridor, Modi has ensured that Kashi Vishwanath temple directly connects to Ganga River.

This project worth more than Rs 900 crore, involved acquiring and demolishing 300 old buildings and constructing as many as 23 buildings. More than 1 lakh people can throng the temple complex– without hassle.

Significantly, during demolition of buildings to pave the way for the project in 2018, over 40 ancient temples were found buried under the layers of concrete and plaster. They have now been conserved and made part of the project. These temples include the Gangeshwar Mahadev temple, the Manokameshwar Mahadev temple, the Jay Vinayak temple, and the Shri Kumbha Mahadev temple were discovered.

Each of these temples has a history going back a few centuries.

Now, a gallery has been devoted to showcase some of the excavated remains at the National Museum in New Delhi, and to run a narrative on their histories on screens alongside.

Officials say the PM insisted that while removing properties that were clogging the proposed corridor, existing heritage structures were preserved.

Today, the Kashi Vishwanath Dham project is now spread over a massive five lakh square feet. The earlier premises was limited to just around 3,000 square feet. As envisioned by Modi, it seeks to not only decongest but to also transform the temple complex.

About 70 per cent of the area of the project has been kept for green cover.

The new buildings will provide a variety of facilities to the pilgrims, including yatri suvidha kendras, tourist facilitation centre, Vedic kendra, Mumukshu bhavan, bhojshala, city museum, viewing gallery, food court, among others.

The project, whose foundation stone was laid by the Prime Minister in 2019, involved constructing not visible gateways and ornamental arches that have been built in heritage architecture style in four directions.

They face the main temple at its centre.

Modi chose Bimal Patel as the architect of the project. Patel is also in-charge of the Central Vista redevelopment project in New Delhi. Already, work is in full swing for a new Parliament by the end of 2022.

As desired by Modi, Patel had to ensure  beautification work of the Kashi Vishwanath temple was carried out without tampering with the original structure of the temple.

It may be a few more weeks before some of these projects of Phase I are actually ready to be opened to the public.

One thing is clear. Definitely, the improvement of the infrastructure in Varanasi is expected to give a boost to tourism in the holy city as well as in the region, including the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Sarnath.

The Rudraksh Convention Centre, designed like a Shiva lingam, can seat 1,200 people, and has divisible meeting rooms, an art gallery, and multipurpose pre-function areas.

Ganga cruises are planned for tourists, road infrastructure has been upgraded, and the Banaras railway station in the city’s Manduadih area has been revamped with the addition facilities,

Elsewhere in the city, LED screens will display information for tourists, including on the history, architecture, and art of Kashi. The famous Ganga Aarti and the aarti at the Kashi Vishwanath temple will be shown on the screens throughout the city.

The Deen Dayal Hastkala Sankul, a trade facilitation centre for weavers, craftsmen, and artisans of Varanasi that was opened in 2017, acts as both a public place and a marketing platform for local artisans.

In Varanasi, “smart signages” have been erected to provide information on the cultural importance of heritage sites and the city’s 84 ghats, which are known for their antiquity and architectural significance.


Avoidable politics?

We may easily think of political reasons for Modi to re-develop Varanasi ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections.

However, you cannot deny that the city has been gasping for breath, needing a big clean-up drive. The opposition could have appreciated the changes that Varanasi had undergone in a short time. Instead, they chose to be on the wrong side of a big churn that was happening in the city.

A hundred years ago, even Gandhiji was so exasperated by the condition of the city, particularly in and around Kashi Vishwanath Temple, that he almost sounded helpless at its plight.

In his “The Story of My Experiments with Truth,” Gandhiji wrote, “I went to the Kashi Vishwanath temple for darshan. I was deeply pained by what I saw there….The approach was through a narrow and slippery lane. Quiet there was none. The swarming flies and the noise made by the shopkeepers and pilgrims were perfectly insufferable. Where one expected an atmosphere of meditation and communion, it was conspicuous by its absence.”

Speaking at the opening of the Banaras Hindu University on February 6, 1916, Gandhiji remarked, “If a stranger was dropped from above on to this great temple and he had to consider what we as Hindus were, would he not be justified in condemning us? Is not this temple a reflection of our own character? I speak feelingly as a Hindu. Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temple should be as dirty as they are? The houses round about are built anyhow. The lanes are tortuous and narrow. If even our temples are not models of roominess and cleanliness, what can our self-government be?”


Coming to terms with troubled past

What worries our so-called “secular-liberal” sections of the society is that the restoration of Varanasi’s glory may aid Modi and the BJP in the run-up to the next Lok Sabha elections in 2024, by which time the grand Ram temple at Ayodhya may almost be ready to receive pilgrims.

There is also apprehension that “uncomfortable” facts of our history relating to the destruction of temples by the rulers of pre-British era may re-surface, gaining public traction and ending the state of denial of a section of the intelligentsia about the historical events. So called left-leaning historians have held forth that no big temple was ever damaged during the Muslim rule of India, written several text books to foster this view.

In fact, now a 52-page booklet brought out by the Yogi Adityanath government on the ‘Kashi Vishwanath Dham’ project, which has been distributed to all BJP chief ministers and MPs, has put on record how the Kashi Vishwanath Temple was razed by rulers like Aurangzeb, Mohammad Gohri and Sultan Mohammad Shah, and how the Gyanvapi Mosque was built upon the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum).

The booklet says that on April 18, 1669, Aurangzeb had issued an order to destroy the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. This “firman” (the order) is preserved in the Asiatic Library in Kolkata. According to the booklet, “Then writer Saki Mustaid Khan in a book recounted the demolition. Aurangzeb had ordered that the temple should not only be broken down but it should be ensured that the temple never comes up again. That is why on Aurangzeb’s orders, the garbhagriha of the temple was broken too to build the Gyanvapi Mosque here. Aurangzeb was informed of the temple’s destruction on September 2, 1669.”

Maratha leader Dattaji Scindia and Malharrao Holkar strived to restore the temple between 1752 and 1780. In 1770, Mahadji Scindhia also issued an order to recover cost of damages to the temple from emperor Shah Alam,

“But by then, Kashi was under control of the East India Company and efforts to redevelop the temple stopped. Between 1770 and 1780, Indore’s Maharani Ahilyabai got the temple reconstructed. Maharaja Ranjit Singh got the temple’s dome covered with gold sheets, Gwalior’s Maharani Baijabai got the mandap made while the Maharaja of Nepal got a big Nandi statue installed here,” says the booklet.

In 1810, Varanasi District Magistrate M Watson wanted that the Gyanvapi premises should be handed over to the Hindus for Kashi Vishwanath Temple but this could never become possible.

Earlier, the booklet recalls,  Mohammad Gohri had got the temple demolished through his lieutenant Sayed Jamaluddin  in 1194. It says the Sanatan Samaj later got the temple reconstructed. Sultan Mahmood Shah of Jaunpur demolished the temple in 1447. But the temple was then again built in 1585 with the help of Raja Todarmal who was a minister in the Akbar regime. In 1632, Shah Jahan had also ordered the destruction of the temple and sent in forces. But resistance from the local people prevented the marauders from reaching the main temple but they succeeded in razing 63 other temples of Kashi.


Modi did not mince words about past

Modi, in his speech at Kashi Vishwanath Dham on December 13, mentioned Aurangzeb to recount how invaders had tried to destroy Kashi city. Modi made it a point to state that “invaders, like Aurangzeb, tried to destroy Varanasi but the city of Varanasi stood the test of time. If Aurangzeb comes here, Shivaji also stands up. If any Salar Masood moves here, brave warriors like Raja Suheldev make him realise the power of our unity.”

Modi did not mince any words as he said, “Invaders attacked this city, tried to destroy it. History has been witness to Aurangzeb’s atrocities, his terror. They tried to change civilization with the sword. They tried to crush our culture with fanaticism. But the soil of this country is different from the rest of the world…Even the British were chased out of this land.”

For Modi who was closely involved in the Kashi Vishwanath Dham project, the Kashi Vishawanath Dham was a life-time achievement.  He got a 3D model of it installed in his office for following up on the progress of work.

It is a fact that Modi has visited Kashi  at least100 times, 70 times as Gujarat chief minister and 30 times as the PM. It had long been Modi’s vision to create better conditions for pilgrims and devotees, who had to navigate through the  congested streets and surroundings of the temple.

This project, as Modi believes, would lead to an increase in religious activities in Kashi, promote employment opportunities, tourism and industrial activities and increase the per capita income of people in Varanasi.


Shankaracharya’s tryst with Kashi

As Varanasi soaks in spiritual fervour,  those who fear restoration of its grandeur will exacerbate the communal tension in the country must remember Adi Shankaracharya’s tryst with Kashi.

As the legend goes, Shankaracharya was on his way to the temple after finishing his bath in the Ganga. Suddenly he saw a chandala (a dalit) and his four dogs on the way, and told him to move away from him, as per the custom in those days.

The Chandala then asked him question in two verses which is –

अन्नमायादन्नमयमथवा चैतन्यमेव चैतन्यात्

यतिवर दूरीकर्तुं वाञ्छसि किं ब्रूहि गच्छगच्छेति

To move matter from matter, or to separate Consciousness from Consciousness?

O best among the twice born, which of these two do you wish to achieve by saying, “Move away, move away”?

On hearing this question, Shankaracharya, filled with a grander vision of the Oneness that binds all beings,  replied to these questions in five verses and touched the feet of Chandala, as a way to show respect towards him.

Thus was born, Shankaracharya’s famous composition, “Manisha Panchakam.”

One of the five verses goes thus:

ब्रह्मैवाहमिदं जगच्च सकलं चिन्मात्रविस्तारितं

सर्वं चैतदविद्यया त्रिगुणयाऽशेषं मया कल्पितम् ।

इत्थं यस्य दृढा मतिस्सुखतरे नित्ये परे निर्मले

चण्डालोऽस्तु स तु द्विजोऽस्तु गुरुरित्येषा मनीषा मम ॥ 2॥

I am pure Consciousness, and this entire universe, is only an expansion of pure Consciousness.

Out of this Maya all this that we see, made of the three gunas, has been conjured by imagination.

He whose intellect is firmly established in the all blissful, eternal, Supreme Reality, be he a Chandala or be he a Brahmana, such a one is indeed worthy of being a Guru. This is my firm conviction.


By Shekhar Iyer

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